Trust the Data? Not so Fast

Dan O’Donnell dives into the Evers Administration’s growing scandal surrounding nursing home death rates during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 24, 2021

Perspective by Dan O’Donnell

If there was but one mantra (read: cliché) that guided the Evers Administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was “Trust the data.”  Data, we were assured, guided every decision, every mandate, every lockdown.  All were necessary because of what the data dictated and prescribed.

Turns out that data couldn’t be trusted.

Last week’s revelation that the Department of Health Services (DHS) has been for the past year significantly undercounting COVID deaths in long-term care facilities calls into question not only the Evers Administration’s competence, but also its trustworthiness.

Deputy DHS Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk announced Thursday that over the past few weeks, the agency quietly updated the total number of nursing home deaths from the 1,956 that DHS had been reporting to a new total of 2,927.

“As you know, we have been committed to transparency in the data we received from the 98 different local and tribal health departments throughout this pandemic,” Willems Van Dijk said while explaining how DHS engaged in the exact opposite of transparency.

How exactly were 971 deaths “unclassified” and, more importantly, why were they unclassified until this exact moment?  If it was, as the Evers Administration claims, “part of the normal process of updating the state’s health data,” then why didn’t it tell anyone about this update until it was complete?

“Oh, by the way, it turns out we undercounted nursing home deaths by nearly 1,000. Oops!” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of this administration’s commitment to transparency and honest data-keeping.

“If you visited our data webpages recently, you may have noticed some changes,” Willems Van Dijk explained, adding that one area that saw significant changes “is the percentage of cases or deaths that live in group housing.  When case and death data were put into our disease surveillance system, it was common for some fields to be left empty or boxes to be unchecked due to the inability of the disease investigator to collect that particular information.”

This doesn’t pass the smell test, as a person’s home address is about the easiest bit of demographic information to find.  Anyone with a search engine can find pretty much anyone else in the country in a matter of seconds, but somehow it took a year for DHS to figure out the home addresses of 971 COVID victims?

Rather amazingly, the Evers Administration says it is still missing basic demographic information from 1,726 people who have died of COVID-19—a full 26% of the state’s total number of deaths!  This is either inexcusable incompetence or a Cuomo-esque coverup.  There really is no in-between.

Since Wisconsin’s data correction, the percentage of COVID deaths in long-term care facilities jumped from 27% to 45%, which is far more in line with the rate of every other state in the Upper Midwest.  It also tends to bolster the suggestion of Governor Evers’ critics that the lengthy state lockdown was a gross overreaction to a disease that primarily killed the very old and the very sick.

“If more people would have known that almost half the deaths were in nursing homes, we would have (done) a better job prioritizing nursing homes,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Had Wisconsinites known that nearly half of all COVID victims were very old, very frail people, would they have ever supported the draconian (and likely unconstitutional) infringements into their personal liberty?

Both Vos and former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald questioned the Evers Administration about what appeared to be a strange lack of COVID deaths among nursing home residents last March.

“The thing that could never add up was why were the deaths much higher [than the number of COVID patients in intensive care]?” Fitzgerald, now a U.S. Congressman, told WISN Radio on Tuesday.  “So we kept asking, ‘Are these people going directly from the nursing home to the funeral home?’”

Fitzgerald said that legislative leaders never could get a straight answer out of Evers’ team, and now he and the rest of Wisconsin’s Republican Congressional delegation are demanding to know the truth.

“The failure to accurately classify these deaths obscured the truly dire situation in Wisconsin’s long-term care facilities,” they wrote.  “Had this information been accurately reported in real time, medical personnel could have targeted the limited supply of medical resources available to them toward long-term care facilities.”

It might have also prompted a change in how the Evers Administration—and the people it governs—responded to the virus from the very beginning.  Had Wisconsinites known that nearly half of all COVID victims were very old, very frail people, would they have ever supported the draconian (and likely unconstitutional) infringements into their personal liberty?

This isn’t, of course, to say that the deaths of nursing home residents don’t matter or that their lives, health, and safety should not be valued, but a quarantine of those most at risk of death or hospitalization from COVID-19—and not the entire country—always made more logical sense.

Had the data been accurately and honestly presented, Wisconsin might have been better able to make this logical decision, but the Evers Administration through either ineptitude or intentional deceit prevented it.

Now, State Senators Alberta Darling and Patrick Testin are calling for a full audit of the Evers Administration’s handling of COVID-19 data.  Evers naturally opposes this.

“If the Republicans want to weaponize the Legislative Audit Bureau, no surprise there,” he said dismissively on Monday.

This is something of a surprise, since Evers himself has been such a proponent of following the science during the pandemic and letting it guide public policy.  He should want an audit to ensure that his data is accurate.  After all, it’s been his administration saying for a year to trust it.